NOVA Science Show Considers What Makes Us Human

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Have you ever thought about what makes us truly human? What is it that defines us and sets us apart? How important is language and laughter, and how early do babies start to learn these essential life skills? These are some of the questions that host David Pogue considers in the first episode of the new season of Nova Science Now, produced by our partner WGBH in Boston.

In "What Makes Us Human," which airs on PBS on Wednesday October 10, Pogue tries to understand, with the help of leading scientists, questions like this one: If only humans can laugh, why is laughter critical for our survival? How can ancient tools offer clues about the possible origins of language? Pogue, who is the technology columnist for The New York Times, shares some of his fascinating insights with The Takeaway.

"We seem to be the only animals who laugh," Pogue says. "So we spent a day at the Cincinnati Zoo, and had me tickle baby animals. You know, there could be worse jobs." Having little success with making the animals giggle though, the show then began to look into the history of laughter, and how we evolved to engage in this behavior.

"It's really wild," Pogue says "In the beginning, the ancestors of today's great apes would just kind of 'chuff' whenever they were play fighting." Though other species may "laugh" when they're playing, humans are the only animals that laugh at one another. 

Dr. Gina Mireault joined the PBS team to demonstrate the way babies learn humor, and the function of laughter for human beings. Her study showed that babies learn cues from their parents about what is funny.

But why are we hardwired to laugh and smile? "It's a bonding mechanism," Pogue says. "It's a social mechanism." And if socializing is necessary for human survival, learning when to laugh is crucial for a young child.   


David Pogue

Produced by:

Elizabeth Ross

Comments [3]

Ed from Larchmont

After we put aside these smaller traits, what makes us human is that we are made in the image of God, and can enter into friendship and life with God. Those other traits are there, but they're details.

Oct. 11 2012 05:54 AM
Ray Audette from Dallas Texas

The difference between Neanderthals and modern humans is the same difference as between wolves and dogs - neoteny!

This retention of juvenile traits into adulthood is the most common mutation in both plants and animals. It is found in every 735 human births in America in the form of Down's Syndrome.

At the same time that wolves became dogs, according to DNA evidence, Neanderthals became us.

This is the topic of my next book "Neanderthal Neoteny: How Dogs Domesticated Mankind".

Ray Audette
Auhor "NeanderThin"

Oct. 10 2012 11:02 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

If only we could laugh at ourselves more. A basic tenet of my life has been the ability to go from the sneer of contempt to the frivolous smile... laughter included.

Beware the ways you tickle a might turn into a dirty joke...

Oct. 10 2012 12:15 PM

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